Monday, June 08, 2009

Blogging and Anonymity

Bloggers are a childish lot, myself included. We're all prone to throwing our toys out of the pram on occasion, and occasionally saying things behind the safety of a computer screen that we'd be FAR too cowardly to say to anybody's face.

But the worst of us are commonly the 'anonymous' bloggers.

Anonymity is a delicious mask to hide behind, resulting in far too many bloggers falling foul of what the Internet has come to call 'John Gabriel's Great Internet Fuckwad Theory.'

This theory evolved on webcomic Penny Arcade

But the fact is, not all anonymous bloggers are idiots. In fact, many people blog behind the shield of anonymity for legitimate reasons.

After all, the problem with expressing opinions over the 'net is that you can later be called to task for them. I mention in this post some examples of Internet activity coming back to bite poor bloggers - including the story of a schoolteacher fired for publishing a picture of her consuming an alcoholic beverage on MySpace.

I know plenty of 'anonymous' bloggers who write incognito to protect their 'real-life' reputations - and that freedom to truly express themselves is why their blogs tend to be good. 'Out and proud' bloggers, myself included, occasionally censor ourselves because people we know might be reading.

So anonymity is a choice - and one that evolved bloggers respect.

Which is why is was incredibly disappointed to hear about National Review Online hack Ed Whelans smugly 'outing' an anonymous blogger who dared to mock him.

Ed Whelan, a conservative pundit, was so incensed by a response posted by anonymous blogger publius that he tracked down publius' real identity and shared it with the readers of his blog.

"I’ve been reliably informed that publius is in fact the pseudonym of law professor John F. Blevins of the South Texas College of Law," Whelan smugly announced, in a post entitled Exposing an Irresponsible Anonymous Blogger. He brushes off the mistake publius was criticizing him for - instead declaring "Gee, I think it’s the guy hiding behind the pseudonym who has reason to be embarrassed."

publius, AKA John Blevins, held up his hand after this exposure and admitted his identity - revealing that he'd written anonymously because: "I’ve heard that pre-tenure blogging can cause problems – and I don’t want conservative students to feel uncomfortable based on my posts."

I think Blevins has handled his 'outing' with grace and class - which is more than I can say for Whelan. As a contributor to National Review Online, I thought he'd have had at least a modicum of respect for his blogging peer. Instead, he smugly gloated about his 'victory' in three follow up posts.

He brushed off criticisms of what he did, arguing that people "seem to assume that I owed some sort of obligation to Blevins not to expose his pseudonymous blogging. I find this assumption baffling. A blogger may choose to blog under a pseudonym for any of various self-serving reasons, but I don’t see why anyone else has any obligation to respect the blogger’s self-serving decision."

Whelan clearly doesn't 'get it.' His decision to 'out' Blevins - deliberately, and with the understanding that doing so might criticize the professor's job - says more about Whelan that it will ever say about Blevins.

Ed Whelan was unable to sustain an intellectual debate with his detractors, so he resorted to the final, desperate act of the ethically bankrupt - he decided to make a 'real life' attack against somebody in 'revenge' for having his Internet credibility questioned.

It's frankly pathetic. If Whelan was half the man he arrogantly thinks he is, he'd have been able to nail publius in debate, without resorting to personal attacks. What he did is disrespectful, cowardly, pathetic and reprehensible; a well-respected 49-year-old legal professional has reduced himself to childish antics.

But while Ed Whelan is clearly the 'bad guy' here, it does present a sobering warning to the rest of us.

There is no such thing as Internet 'anonymity' Not truly. That's why we've all got to think very hard about exactly what we share on the Internet.

Whatever we write, we may very well have those words thrown back in our face at some point in the future. Therefore, before you hit the 'publish post' button, perhaps we should ask ourselves if we're really willing to stand by what we write.


Anonymous said...

"It's frankly pathetic. If Whelan was half the man he arrogantly thinks he is, he'd have been able to nail publius in debate, without resorting to personal attacks. What he did is disrespectful, cowardly, pathetic and reprehensible; a well-respected 49-year-old legal professional has reduced himself to childish antics."

Well said Roland! I do not share the fact that I blog with many people. I try very hard to maintain a level of mutual respect on my blogs. That is sometimes hard on the political blog. LOL! I've gotten some rather nasty and demeaning e-mails. Most of the time their anger is due, in part, to a misunderstanding of where I am coming from. Sometimes I make an effort to clarify... others I don't.

The reason I've chosen anonymity is that I sometimes share very personal things. I share them because I think that there are others that may struggle with things I've struggled with. There's nothing worse than feeling like you are all alone... that no one understands.

We all have to wear certain masks in our lives. It is a form of protection. It makes me very uncomfortable when people know more about me than I know about them. There's a process that you go through in real life where time is taken to gain and earn trust. That barrier is removed through anonymity online. For me anyway.

I think this guy chose anonymity for the right reasons. There's also the issue of when people that are well known in a certain area... whether they are a successful writer, politician, clergy man, or expert on something... knowing their background can color how you view the content of what they are saying. I do include my background to explain how I've come to certain conclusions while maintaining my obscurity.

Roland Hulme said...

I think you do a wonderful job, CB. You often use your background and experiences to explain why you think how you do and that makes it all a lot more significant and 'real' than just stating an opinion. You've got a good balance of openness and anonymity.

jiulong said...

Great post!

Have you taken into account the nature of blogging as well? Blogging isn't dialog. It isn't an editorial.

It's a form of masturbation, in a way that everyone can watch and yet not criticise.

The blogger needs validation. Anonymous validation just won't do, especially with something as vital to one's masculinity.

I really don't get why it's so important that you CAN'T be anonymous. I relish the fact that I can whisper a comment without possessing the means for everyone to hear it.

Does the fact that I'm here acknowledging your existence and letting you know how I feel about what you have written, MANDATE that you should be able to know who I am?

Should I feel a responsibility to write something "intelligent" just because the option exists for me to do so?

Thus it seems rather silly that people get in trouble, reputation-wise, for their posts. Why would someone risk their own reputation, if not for the fact that they are trying to turn the tables to get the blogger watch THEM masturbate?

I can understand the row that would follow, in typical schoolyard fashion, as it breaks down into a size comparison contest.

But in the end, it's not really about that. No matter who wins or loses, they're both thanking God for blogging, which gives them both the opportunity to whip it out and wave it around.